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Video of crucifix removed from Washington gallery
December 1st, 2010
02:06 PM ET

Video of crucifix removed from Washington gallery

By CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Eric Marrapodi in Washington

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed a controversial video Wednesday after drawing criticism that the piece was offensive to Christians.

A four-minute video clip by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was part of a larger exhibit titled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which looks at "sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," according to gallery curators. Gender and sexuality are strong themes in the exhibition.

The clip, from Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly," included a scene showing ants crawling over a small crucifix.

The complete video of "A Fire in My Belly," is over 30 minutes long and includes masturbation and full frontal male nudity. Wojnarowicz, who was gay, died from AIDS in July of 1992.

His companion of seven years, Tom Rauffenbart, said Wedneday that while they never talked about Wojnarowicz's intent for the piece, he was "extremely disappointed they pulled this."

"I'm pretty angry about it. It doesn't surprise me, though. David was always controversial. I just wish he was alive," Rauffenbart told CNN.

Curators for the portrait gallery and media specialists from New York University's Fales Library, where the original work is housed, worked to edit down the video into a four-minute clip to include in the exhibition. While a small portion of the full frontal nudity was shown in the edited video, the sexually explicit portion was edited out.

But it was the ants on the crucifix that drew the ire of the Catholic League and politicians. "I didn't register any other objection with this exhibit, it's not my taste. But this is hate speech against Christians," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League told CNN.

Donohue said he did not personally view the exhibit or the offending video as it was presented. After being alerted to the matter by a reporter for the New York Post, he watched another edited version of "A Fire in My Belly" on YouTube, he said.

On Wednesday, CNN was able to view the version that had been pulled from the museum. Both the version on YouTube and the version shown at the museum featured several shots of a small crucifix being overrun by ants. The portion shown at the portrait gallery also showed someone sewing their lips shut, legless beggars in Mexico, silver coins falling in a dish of blood, and a single bloody eyeball on a string.

"Obviously there's a judgment call here," Donohue said. "Obviously there is a role for criticism of religion in art. But this (the crucifix scene) crossed the line."

Martin Sullivan, director of the gallery, said in a written statement the intent was not to offend Christians.

"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," he wrote. "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend."

"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" cost approximately $750,000 to put on and was done so using private donations, the Smithsonian said. The video in question appeared on a 17-inch touch-screen video kiosk with another video titled "Pink Narcissist." Attendees had to navigate the touch screen to see either video.

Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend 22,000 people came through the exhibit. It opened in late October, and museum officials said prior to the media attention about the ants on the crucifix, they only received one complaint, regarding the sexual nature of the works.

The portrait gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institution museums, which are federally funded with taxpayer dollars.

Donohue sent a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees asking them to "reconsider the propriety of funding the Smithsonian Institution." The House and Senate committees in part control how much money the museums receive.

"What gives the government the right to pick the pocket of the taxpayer to insult religion?" Donohue told CNN.

Donohue is not alone. There is a rising chorus of Republicans in Congress who are suggesting federal funds ought to be monitored more closely when given to the Smithsonian. the presumptive speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia have both come out publicly with similar comments on the matter.

Rep. Dan Lungren of California is the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee. He said in a written statement to CNN, "In light of this inappropriate use of funds, we plan to carefully review the process by which exhibits are selected by the primarily federally funded institution."

Lungren's staff said he had not seen the exhibit in person, saying the Smithsonian's vast collection makes it impossible to see everything firsthand. His staff also added that while the exhibit itself was funded privately, taxpayers were footing the bill for costs from the exhibit space to the electric bill.

Dianne Apostolos-Cappadona, professor of religious art at Georgetown University, said she disagreed with the museum's decision to remove the work. "This is a museum that receives public funding (but) an artist is supposed to have the ability to express what you're feeling and thinking and seeing. So that comes from whoever you are [as an artist]. It comes from within. It comes from the world you've been socialized in."

"When did the public become so narrowly defined? So are we only going to show (only) the work of heterosexual white males?" she asked.

Gallery director Sullivan spoke Wednesday with CNN's John King about the exhibit and the controversy.

"Art in general has always been an instrument through which society is kind of challenged to think about, 'Well, what do we truly believe in, what can we tolerate as a society?' So we feel that this exhibition is consistent with the mission that Congress gave the Portrait Gallery when it was created," Sullivan said.

He said museum officials were taken back by the criticism.

"The criticism, which was vigorous and aggressive, came almost entirely from people who had seen neither the exhibition or video, but who read certain accounts of it that got them convinced that this was intentionally a sacrilegious placement of a piece of work," Sullivan said.

"It was made in Mexico, the artist was very deeply influenced by the vivid Latin American imagery, which often has a lot of blood, a lot of violence in it. The religious element is a standard dime-store crucifix, which was set in the sand and, just as (with) decomposing bodies, there were ants crawling over it," Sullivan said.

Rauffenbart said the video and an accompanying still-photo component were created "around the time of AIDS crisis. There was no cure and people were dying all around us. Most of the images were directed toward that kind of thing."

Sullivan said the decision to pull the piece from the exhibit was difficult to make for the museum.

"The artist is dead. He died of AIDS, so we can not speak for him on what he intended. But the argument that the portrait gallery as a part of a museum complex was deliberately supporting a sacrilegious statement seemed to us a reason to say, 'OK, that was not the intent. We wish you would take a look at it.' But we would rather the largely and more important theme of the show continue to be available."

The full exhibit features works from 105 artists including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Annie Leibowitz. At the beginning of the exhibit there is a sign that reads, "This exhibition contains mature themes." Sullivan said although the piece by Wojnarowicz was being removed, the sign will remain in place.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Art • Catholic Church • Christianity • DC • Homosexuality • United States

soundoff (129 Responses)
  1. deecee10000

    My prayer. . .

    Dear Gawd (I have a bit of an accent):

    If I ever get to the point that I start believing little plastic images of you, stamped in the back with "made in China" (or Korea/ Taiwan/ Etc..) (even though I don't actually know what you look like) . . .are more important than love of people, especially those who are in suffering, please go ahead and kill me off. If I ever get to that point, I don't think life would be worth living for me. . . Amen

    December 2, 2010 at 1:40 am |
    • Jewls

      *smiles*

      December 2, 2010 at 4:09 am |
  2. Judy

    I watched CNN tonight explain how several conservative right wing republicans were in on the whole raising cain to remove the art work. I find it funny that they point the finger at democrats saying that they are taking away our freedoms yet turn around and throw a fit over a piece of artwork and have it removed thus removing our ability to view or judge the work for ourselves in it's intended setting. I think that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It is a piece of artwork, if you are offended then don't look at it. I am sure many people find the naked statue of Michelangelo's David offensive too but I don't see anyone removing it from the gallery. It is also good to note that David was a hero in the Bible and the sculpture was originally commissioned for a cathedral! Maybe the conservatives should go after David too. Seriously, we have way too much going on in our country right now than to be nitpicking over a piece of artwork. There will always be works of art that push the limits it's called creativity now build a bridge and get over it.

    December 2, 2010 at 1:33 am |
    • Frogist

      @Judy: It's funny you should mention the David! It is probably among the oldest pieces of art, along with the Venus de Milo, that is subject to censorship even today. People forget that it is a tribute to the beauty of the human form and spirit. Covering up his naughty bits only detracts from that message. It seems people are so scared of se-xuality or religious discussion that they leap to censorship rather than openly confronting that fear by recognizing something as lovely as the David.

      December 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  3. Kevin

    It is art. Ants on a crucifix is not obscene. It should not have been removed. No one is forcing you to go and see the exhibit.

    December 2, 2010 at 1:11 am |
  4. SayWhaaaa!!

    How convienient, I bet you 100 bucks if this was muslims asking for some removal of a muhammad thing, The entire media would be in an uproar. Where's the freedom of religion/ speech/ expression/ or whatever freedom thos Islam bashing idiots parade around now, and if it was a Muhammad piece it probably wouldn't be removed either. What a nation of hyprcrites HAHA

    December 2, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  5. kazz

    lame

    December 2, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  6. deecee10000

    Does anyone in their right mind honestly believe that god, who supposedly created all including human beings and love, would have you choose a piece of plastic manufactured in a bad Chinese factory above love of fellow human beings, especially a human beings in their suffering? C'mon now. What kind of "god" are you worshipping? Is his heart made of cheap plastic too? Did your god's heart get manufactured in a Chinese factory as well?

    December 2, 2010 at 12:35 am |
  7. Terry W. Brookman

    No the tax payer should not pay for this and as for val-you how about $29.00 any child with a glue gun and access to a junk shop could do it. As far as symbolism the general public would never get it. It is quite symbolic and has much to tell, proof of that being the outcry from we the people.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  8. MashaSobaka

    I can understand religious folks being offended. I don’t think that gives them the right to censorship, but I can understand. What ticks me off is the Republicans calling this an “inappropriate use of taxpayer money”. Hey Republicans! As a taxpayer, I think that spending billions upon billions of dollars to blow other nations into oblivion is a far more “inappropriate” use of taxpayer money than the display of art! Good to know that protecting the sensitivities of the religious has a higher monetary priority than protecting thousands of innocent civilians from dying in an explosion. I know you guys like to flex your censorship muscle every time you see something you don’t like, but it’s time to sort out your priorities. Seriously.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:19 am |
  9. Jesse Helms was stupid git

    Sullivan should have resigned instead of pulling the piece. The Smithsonian should be ashamed of themselves for bowing to the pressure of a religious group and denying Wojnarowicz, one of the 20th century's most important artists, his freedom of speech.

    Shame on you.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  10. deecee10000

    Yeah, if you follow a religion and you get offended because someone allows ants to crawl on a piece of cheap plastic, molded to look like a cross with a little plastic man on it, manufactured in some Chinese factory and that plastic cross means more to you than the dignity and life of REAL human beings, I'd say its time for you to take a very hard serious look at your religion and start to ask yourself some very serious questions.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  11. cm

    I am glad its toast. It was hype not art.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  12. nathan

    o its normal if a religious community is offended they cry about it. but if agnostics or atheist get picked on its not impotent

    December 2, 2010 at 12:05 am |
  13. sharky

    I've seen the video. There is a heck of a lot more to it than just ants crawling on Jesus. Simply saying ants crawling on Jesus is editing what else is in the video and painting the complainers as Jesus freaks. And frankly well we cannot have double standards. I seem to recall depictions of Mohammad removed as it was called hate speech to depict him, but if Christ is depicted it is called free speech. Sorry it does not work that way. Either both are allowed, or neither are allowed.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Sharky: What images of Mohammed were removed from the Smithsonian? Please provide a link because I've never heard of such an incident.
      Also you might want to note that the head of the Catholic League was only offended by the image of the crucifix with ants on it... He didn't even bother to look at the video. At least you are one up on him with that.

      December 2, 2010 at 11:49 am |
  14. Donajam

    The whole point of art is to move people... to make them think. The artist can not continually wonder if he is going to offend someone... sometimes though, that is the goal. Now that the art has been removed or edited down, the thinking and discussions will stop. sad. I am catholic. I'm not offended at all.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm |
  15. Luther

    These religious freaks get offended about everything, I am offended that religion does not pay taxes. Just another money making scheme but tax free.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  16. Marty

    If Christians are offended by ants on a crucifix, they would have had a cow if they had been at the actual crucifixion. I'm sure Jesus was covered with much worse. Organized religion is quite amusing and silly.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm |
  17. Tabs

    @ Randy:

    Why is it necessary that if one's religion is humiliated.. then others should be dragged in too.. I feel that every faith needs respect and should not be subject to fun or humiliation.

    But if freedom of speech is advocated than there should be tolerance for everything anyone does or says. That would include the pics of crucifix or the cartoons of Mohammad or the holocaust or elephant headed idols.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:37 pm |
  18. PsyAmp

    I propose an "Everybody Draw Ant-Covered Jesus" day.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
    • MashaSobaka

      If Muslims were raising this outcry there would be a thousand angry bigots screaming that Islam is incompatible with Western civilization. Offend some Christians and you're just protecting the wellbeing of American taxpayers by bending to the Christians' will. Double standards...they're tricky.

      December 2, 2010 at 12:23 am |
    • Jewls

      I'm good with that!

      December 2, 2010 at 4:26 am |
    • Frogist

      @PsyAmp: You joke, but lately pushy christians are really just stepping on my last nerve. I am sorely tempted to do some religious art. And they wouldn't be too happy with the ideas I have. The only thing stopping me is I don't think it would be very good art if it's just about revenge on Christians. That seems one dimensional, which I suppose would be a comment in itself. But good art poses questions and provokes emotion and can be interpreted in many ways IMHO. So I'm hoping for more facets to the idea than just "Christchans iz stoopid."

      December 2, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  19. puddin

    I hope the Xians are right about the rapture...after that, we won't have to deal with them anymore.

    December 1, 2010 at 11:30 pm |
  20. risen

    thank GOD Christ is not on the cross...

    December 1, 2010 at 11:24 pm |
    • dirty sancheez

      Yeah, Jesus is afraid of ants.

      December 1, 2010 at 11:43 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.